There is so much that is positive about the Internet, but there is still the “reality” part of virtual reality. Since the Web has become an extension of teens’ offline lives or a reflection of what they doin the real world, it makes sense that some of the darker aspects of teen life would show up online as well. In “Totally Wired,” I wrote about the teen girls with eating disorders who inhabit one the darker corners of the Internet. They blog under the code names “ana” and “mia” and post daily reports literally “weighing in” in their quest to be thin. They link to each other and plaster their web pages with images of an emaciated Nicole Richie, Mary Kate Olsen or Kate Moss for “thinspiration.” Some of them want to get better, but many of them don’t. So they end up encouraging each other in their disease. A similar phenomenon happens with teens who self injure or cut themselves.
The eating disorders community has been divided over whether companies that host these sites should take them down. Yahoo! decided to remove them, but other sites, like Xanga, did not. You can go to Xanga and search blogrings using the keywords “ana” or “mia.” You’ll find them. At the same time, they are very real representations of the emotional reality these girls are living with and continue to give therapists and researchers insight into the disease and the girls who suffer from it.
The effects these sites have on the girls who visit them have been researched and documented. According to the latest research reported by Reuters:
“A pilot study released on Monday of U.S. eating disorder patients aged between 10 and 22 showed that up to a third learn new weight loss or purging methods from Web sites that promote eating disorders by enabling users to share tips, such as what drugs induce vomiting and what Internet sites sell them.
But the study — published in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal Pediatrics — found that eating disorder sufferers were also learning new high-risk ways to lose weight from each other on Web sites aimed at helping them recover.”
One therapist I interviewed for the book said the same thing happens at offline eating disorder support groups — young women will come out of isolation and connect with other women sharing tips that hurt vs. help.